People’s Square (Rénmín Guǎngchǎng, 人民广场), like much of today’s Shanghai, is a showcase. Fortunately, it’s also home to beautifully maintained gardens and parkscapes, culminating in People’s Park (Rénmín Gōngyuán, 人民公园), which occupies the northeastern quadrant of this massive tract of land in the middle of Puxi (the west bank of the Huangpu River).
Nowhere is the “showcase” aspect more apparent than at the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, where optimistic projections of boundless—yet carefully managed and controlled—growth take the form of an enormous scale model of future Shanghai and a 360-degree computer-generated city starring a manic animated flying pixie guide (you might want to sit this bit of digital theater out if you have a queasy stomach).
The Museum’s distinctive upside-down ‘droid architecture joins a slew of other imaginatively designed signature buildings dotting the otherwise green expanse of the square (it’s far more a park than a traditional square). On the southern side, the Shanghai Museum houses a quality collection of artifacts, from ancient jades to classical calligraphy and paintings in a building loosely designed on the model of a bronze-age cooking vessel.
To the west, the Shanghai Grand Theatre updates the traditional upturned Chinese roof in stunning fashion, while a touch of the past remains in the building on the square’s northwestern corner. Today, it’s home to the Shanghai Art Museum, which focuses on modern and contemporary Chinese work; before 1949, when the square was a horse track, it was the site of the Shanghai Racing Club.
Nestled in the pleasant green oasis of People’s Park, on the northside of the square, another museum awaits: the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. Its sleek contemporary design creates a fine contrast with a lily pond flanked by paths and shady pavilions.
Museums aside, the square is large enough to spend a good long afternoon exploring. On nice days, Shanghai residents sit, chat, play cards, fly kites and stroll, making for a lively public space, though the expanse of People’s Avenue (Rénmín Dàdào, 人民大道) slices the square in two in a ham-fisted fashion that can give the impression that cars trump people in the urban planner’s schemes.
Regardless, after a few hours wandering the park or a museum, you can discuss urban planning, contemporary art, Chinese park etiquette or whatever else suits your fancy over a bite of food and a drink at great indoor-outdoor restaurants like Kathleen’s 5 and Barbarossa or, if you’re on a budget, at one of the cheap food stalls lining the east and northwest edges of the square.